“I am here because the issues involved in this march today are so fundamental that they are above the partisan level,” Romney said then.
He forged ahead with his support for civil rights and against extremism, which at times pitted him against members of his own party. A half-century later, his son Mitt would stand as the lone Republican in the Senate chamber to cross party lines. In voting to convict President Trump of abusing the power of his office, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Wednesday became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president in his own party.
“I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me,” Romney said in his floor remarks. He added: “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented, and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.”
Historian Geoffrey Kabaservice said Mitt Romney’s “sense of Constitution, religion and morality have put him outside the party consensus.”
“He did a brave thing that’s in keeping with his father’s example,” Kabaservice said.
George Romney’s participation in that 1963 march was one of many moments that put him at odds with some supporters, fellow members of the Mormon Church, and some in his own party. Letters denouncing his efforts poured in. In the book “Once in a Great City”: A Detroit Story,” author David Maraniss describes a letter Romney received from a Georgia lawyer after he spoke at a memorial service for a civil rights activist. “We southern Mormons find it difficult to believe that any Mormon Elder could ever advocate integration and subsequent amalgamation of the races,” the letter read.
The next year, Romney stood before the Republican National Convention and urged against extremism in the party. In the Nixon administration, as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he ordered the agency to reject project applications from cities and states that favored segregated housing.
“Romney’s stance made him a pariah within the administration. Nixon shut down the program, refused to meet with his housing secretary and finally drove him from the Cabinet,” Nikole Hannah-Jones reported in ProPublica in 2015.
Maraniss said Mitt Romney’s decision in a way paid homage to the rabble-rousing ways of the father he “worshiped.” He compared the immediate backlash Mitt Romney faced on social media to hate mail sent to his father.
“Mitt is a Republican politician in a time when his father wouldn’t have survived, so this was an opportunity for Mitt to show the courage he would have wanted to show his father,” Maraniss said.
In 2011, Mitt Romney proudly recalled his father’s work to writer Michael Leahy.
“My dad was a champion of civil rights when some in the Republican Party questioned the civil rights movement,” Romney said. The governor “has been my greatest influence,” Romney said, and is “the person I have admired most in political life” even while acknowledging differences in their political philosophies.
Kabaservice said George Romney’s support for civil rights illustrated his refusal to ignore principles “for the purpose of political expediency.”
“He really was an example of a courageous and principled politician,” he said, “and that would have to have been in the back of Mitt Romney’s mind as he cast his vote.”